A Nation of Nations

The Latino experience in the United States is a tapestry woven from generations of diverse and colorful stories that speak of adversity and triumph. Secretary Skorton recognizes Hispanic Heritage Month by saluting those whose rich cultural contributions have helped make this nation what it is today.


We are a nation of immigrants. (Photo collage via the National Museum of American History)

We are a nation of immigrants. (Photo collage via the National Museum of American History)

My father and his family immigrated to the United States from western Russia, in what is now Belarus, during the 1919 influenza pandemic that ravaged Europe.Their story mirrors that of so many generations who came through Ellis Island, believing in the spirit of generosity embodied by the Statue of Liberty and its poetic welcome, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” For many of our families, the American Dream was very real and promised lives better than those offered back home. So many have made and continue to make the arduous, often dangerous trek here in hopes of fashioning a better life for themselves and their families. My family’s story is but one example.

In addition to improving their own prospects and those of their families, immigrant families have contributed in enormous ways to American prosperity and competitiveness. According to a study by the group Partnership for a New American Economy, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in 2010 were founded by immigrants or their children, employing more than 10 million people.

Among many groups who have made the United States their home, one of today’s largest and most rapidly growing is people of Hispanic origin. But the Hispanic presence here long predates the existence of the United States, so Latino culture has always had an influence in this country. The Spanish created the first permanent European settlement in the continental United States in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565. Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15, is a perfect time to reflect on our nation’s history of cultural diversity and appreciate the myriad contributions that Latinos have made to this country from its inception. Every year during Hispanic Heritage Month, the Smithsonian recognizes the Latino influence on American culture with an array of exhibitions, programs, and initiatives.

The National Museum of American History is holding a panel discussion October 15, “In the Barrios and the Big Leagues,” a discussion of the social and cultural impact of baseball in Latino communities, moderated by Smithsonian Latino Center director Eduardo Díaz. Other activities with music, storytelling, and fun for the whole family are planned for Hispanic Heritage Month, including “Innovators in Aviation and Space Family Day” on Saturday, October 3 at the National Air and Space Museum and “¡Sí se puede! Dolores Huerta Family Day” Sunday, October 4, at the National Portrait Gallery, with support from the SLC and the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access. And on Saturday, October 24, NMAH celebrates with the culinary imports that spice up our kitchens. “Food History Weekend: Innovation on Your Plate,” will feature chefs preparing bold salsas and the regional Mexican Oaxacan cuisine.

But the embrace of Hispanic heritage at the Smithsonian is not limited to a single month; it continues year round. For example, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) exhibition “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” is the first major bilingual exhibition on the great South American civilization that created one of the world’s most remarkable engineering feats, a network of roads that stretched more than 24,000 miles across six modern-day countries.

And in addition to exploring the history of Latino contributions to American culture, we also look forward to the impact they will have in the future. Through the Latino Museum Studies Program, the SLC invites graduate students in Latino museum studies to work with Smithsonian curators, scholars, educators, archivists, and conservators on a variety of Latino projects. To date, about 280 graduate students have gone through the program, with some alumni now working at the Smithsonian. I had the pleasure of having lunch with the latest class in July. The SLC also organizes the Young Ambassadors Program, a leadership program for Latino high school seniors. The program has successfully supported more than 200 students in the arts, humanities, and sciences.

As a chronicler of America’s history for 169 years, the Smithsonian relates the stories that reflect the cultural diversity woven into our heritage. We are committed to telling all the stories—the joys, struggles, triumphs, and tragedies. Hundreds of thousands of Africans, Asians, and others did not come to this land voluntarily. And many of the indigenous peoples who were here first, about 13,000 years before Europeans arrived, were marginalized, dispossessed, and killed. We are committed to giving an honest account of these truths through NMAI, our Asian Pacific American Center, the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2016, and all across the Smithsonian.

We are also telling some of those stories through the NMAH series of conversations about who we are as a people, “What It Means to Be American,” as well as the Institution-wide initiative “Our American Journey,” led by the Smithsonian Consortia, which collects and tells the personal stories of people who immigrated to the United States from points around the globe. The online archive of these stories will form the backbone of the forthcoming NMAH exhibition and complementary book, “Many Voices, One Nation,” scheduled to debut in 2017. Discovering these first-person accounts makes one realize how fiercely determined people are to carve out a better life in the United States. By overcoming overwhelming odds, fleeing famine or war or natural disaster, facing barriers of language and unfamiliarity, people throughout history whose strength was forged in this crucible have helped make this country what it is today.

Diversity drives our nation’s dynamism and innovation. It defines us, embodies our values, and strengthens us. The magic of diversity, whether of culture, ethnicity, or viewpoint, is that it allows creativity to flourish by bringing different elements together to create something new and inspire different directions. Take a passion of mine, which was stoked by my dad’s time living in Cuba on the way from Russia before coming to the United States: Afro-Cuban jazz. It emerged about 70 years ago when pioneering musicians added African rhythms and syncopated Latin polyrhythms to the improvisation and harmonic arrangements of jazz—a truly American art form. On Friday, October 16 and Saturday, October 17, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will play some of this music that shares so much with the American experience, each a vibrant jambalaya of influences and ideas. I hope you will join us, and I invite you to take advantage of some of the tremendous activities offered for Hispanic Heritage Month and throughout the year.

For a complete list of our events and resources for Hispanic Heritage Month, please visit our Smithsonian education website.


Posted: 30 September 2015
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.